There were more than a few raised eyebrows when, on December 2, 2010, Sepp Blatter opened an envelope on a stage at FIFA’s headquarters’ in Zurich bearing the word Qatar.
Yes, there were the allegations of bribery, not to mention the logistics of the 2022 World Cup being held in the height of summer in the Middle East. But those weren’t the only issues challenging the integrity of the football’s biggest event.
Scrolling down FIFA’s world rankings on that day, you would have found that No 113 had just been handed a seat alongside the game’s giants. David would be inviting Goliath over for a party, along with 30 of his most imposing mates, just for good measure.
From the lows of 2010, Qatar have emerged as a genuine challenger on the international stage
Here was a country that had never before set foot in the finals, with barely a footballing identity to speak of, set to gain access to the most exclusive of clubs via the back door.
Only, that wasn’t quite the case. The progress made over the last 10 years – they kick off today against Luxembourg in the European qualifiers – largely in part down to the Aspire Academy and a decisively Spanish influence, is testament to that.
True enough, Uruguay and Italy may had already lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy by the time the sport was introduced to Qatar by foreign workers at oil companies in 1948. Only eight years earlier, the country’s population numbered just 16,000 – enough to fit into the 2022 World Cup final venue, Lusail National Stadium, five times over. It’s difficult for a sport to take off when there aren’t many around to play it.
Those who were used crude oil to mark out pitches, before Qatar got its first grass pitch in 1962. From there it grew, culminating in an extraordinary run to the 1981 FIFA Youth World Cup final in Australia. Brazil were dumped out in the quarter-finals, as were England in the semis – a side including future senior internationals Neil Webb and Danny Wallace beaten 2-1 at the SCG in Sydney.
‘I think 1981 was a quite a transformational moment in Qatar’s football history,’ explains Qatar-born Matthias Krug, author of World Cup 2022-focused Journeys on a Football Carpet.
Qatar met England in the World Youth Cup semi-finals in Australia back in 1981
Having already beaten Brazil in the last eight, the Middle Eastern side caused another shock
Qatar’s first taste of success came in 1992 when they emerged victorious from the Gulf Cup
‘Beating teams like Brazil 3-2 in the quarter-finals, or England 2-1 in the semi-finals were really massive moments for the country’s sporting history. It really allowed the country to dream big on the sporting field.’
Further success followed in the guise of Olympic qualification in 1984, before Qatar lifted the Gulf Cup in 1992. They did so again in 2004 – along with securing Gold at the Asian Games in 2006 – but by 2010, the picture wasn’t quite as rosy.
‘As with any country, you have different generations, different cycles of top players coming and going,’ says Krug.
‘You had those two big moments, and then I’d say you had a switching of generations.’
With the World Cup bid given undivided attention, matters on the pitch were being neglected.
A 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Uzbekistan had put paid to hopes of an appearance at South Africa 2010, while an incident against the same opponents in the last-16 of the Asian Games summed up the country’s plight.
You may never have heard of Fahad Khalfan, but the chances are you will have seen him in action. His miss in Guangzhou in November of that year was replayed around the world – dribbling towards an empty goal in the first minute of extra-time after the keeper had misjudged a bouncing ball, only to skew his effort against the far post from just two yards out.
The national team had also veered wildly off course. Their ranking of 113th was the nation’s lowest since its FIFA membership was ratified in 1970. But a route out of their plight had already been marked out.
The Aspire Academy in Doha was established in 2004. Tasked with generating not just the best footballers the country had to offer but also the best athletes, the state-of-the-art environment was intended to work as a talent farm, delivering Qatar to a global stage through sporting achievement.
There was no doubting the quality of the facilities – you only have to take a glance at the list of top European teams that used them for warm-weather training camps in recent years – Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax to name a few.
The Aspire Academy has been instrumental in the development of youth players in Qatar
The sprawling Aspire Academy base is often used by top European teams for training camps
What was missing was the coaching talent needed to coax the best out of Qatar’s next generation. While hiring coaching staff from more than 60 countries across the globe, there is no denying that Aspire’s football programme has a distinctly Spanish feel to it.
As while the academy claims to offer their students an abundance of knowledge from different schools of footballing thought, there was an affinity with Barcelona and their own La Masia academy that shaped early teachings. They even poached one of their disciples to lead their church.
Felix Sanchez was lured from Catalonia to the desert in 2006. Aspire’s head of scouting Josep Colomer – the Barcelona talent spotter credited with discovering Lionel Messi – had convinced him to swap tutoring the likes of Gerard Deulofeu and Sergio Roberto for bringing through Doha’s most gifted.
Tasked with instilling an ethic that could put Qatar on the footballing map, progress was slow to begin with. But there was confidence that patience would pay off.
Mubarak Mustafa is Qatar’s all-time leading goalscorer and a name synonymous with one of the country’s most successful periods on the pitch – his international career book-ended by Gulf Cup successes in 1992 and 2004.
Former Qatar striker Mubarak Mostafa (left) won the Gulf Cup twice with Qatar in his career
Waiting for the next golden generation to arrive, Mustafa, like many, had faith in the Aspire process.
‘Certainly, there were carefully thought-out plans (at Aspire Academy); it did not come out of a vacuum,’ he told Sportsmail.
‘When you nurture young generations and participate in every competition, even if you do not win the first, second, or third place, it means you have a clear, successful programme for Qatari football.’
Success has followed, with Sanchez proving a pivotal figure.
From starting out in 2006, Sanchez has coached his way up through the age groups of Qatar’s national team, from the Under 16s and Under 19s through to the senior squad. It’s a process that has brought success for Barcelona in the form of Pep Guardiola, and England with Gareth Southgate.
It has also paid dividends for The Maroons.
The first real victory for the Academy came in 2014, when a Qatar Under-19 side led by Sanchez and fielding a squad entirely made up of Aspire graduates won the Asian Youth Championship in Myanmar.
Five years on, Sanchez took a number of those players as part of the senior squad to compete in the 2019 Asian Cup. They breezed into the final, winning every match – group stage and knockout – without conceding a goal.
Qatar boss Felix Sanchez was plucked from Barcelona’s La Masia academy back in 2006
They then beat a Japan squad including the likes of Takumi Minamino and Maya Yoshida 3-1 in Abu Dhabi to claim their first ever continental title.
‘Felix Sanchez’s squad that won the Asian title played before that in the youth team. They continued together, and that harmony between Aspire and the coach was great,’ says former goalkeeper Ahmad Khalil, part of the Qatar side that lifted the Arabian Gulf Cup in 1992 and now a presenter for beIN Sports.
‘The Qatar Football Federation remained patient with Aspire, but that paid off at the end. We must not forget that Sanchez’s team is harmonious, talented, and special, which was why the players have shone at every tournament.’
That talent has been instilled by the philosophy of the academy. Ivan Bravo – the Director General of the Academy – has stressed their desire is to mould intelligent players who are capable of making their own decisions on the pitch.
‘I think you really see that in the type of football that’s being played by Qatari players now,’ says Krug.
‘Technically they’re very strong, but also this intelligence on the pitch, and being able to make those decisions I think you can clearly see that in the big games, at the Asian Cup for example.’
Centre-forward Almoez Ali is one such player who appears primed for the big occasion. The 24-year-old grabbed the opening goal against Japan in 2019 with a stunning overhead kick. When the side was invited to compete in the 2019 Copa America, his long-range effort signalled the beginning of a fight-back in a 2-2 draw with Paraguay.
Striker Almoez Ali has already shown his ability in the Asian Cup and at the Copa America
Akfram Afif is a highly-rated forward who became the first Qatari to ever appear in LaLiga
Having already amassed 61 caps, Ali is already joint-fifth on Qatar’s all-time scoring chart with 29 goals – just 12 behind Mustafa.
Akram Afif is another. The current Asian Player of the Year is one of only a handful of Maroon stars with experience in Europe and was the first ever Qatari to play in La Liga during a loan spell at Sporting Gijon in 2016.
It was a watershed moment for the country and its football team, not least due to its affinity with the Spanish game. It is undoubtedly the main source of its recent success.
Along with the Aspire Academy’s Barcelona links, and current national team boss Felix Sanchez, it is hard to escape the affinity between the two countries.
Former Real Madrid striker Raul spent time at Al Sadd towards the end of his career as he began to look towards coaching, tutoring a certain Almoez Ali on the art of finishing.
Pep Guardiola even began his coaching career in the country, his fascination with tactics clear during his stint at Al-Ahli as he sought to pass on his own knowledge to team-mates during his two seasons in Qatar between 2003 and 2005.
Pep Guardiola was another famous name to leave Spain and finish his career off in Qatar
It is another budding Spanish head coach, though, who is currently building a formidable reputation for himself in the Gulf.
Xavi made the surprise move to Al Sadd in 2015 fresh from winning his final Champions League title with Barcelona. Originally moving across to finish his playing career, he took charge of the club in 2019 – enjoying unparalleled success.
He has already collected six trophies, including the Qatar Stars League title this season. His side, which includes former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla, are on course for an unbeaten campaign with just three matches remaining.
His impact cannot be underestimated.
‘Xavi is someone who has been an inspiration for the younger generations here in Qatar,’ says Krug.
‘He’s a real role model who shares all of his vast experiences in world football, and who is able to transmit those experiences really well to the day-to-day.
‘I think they’ve really been able to learn so much from him, from his experiences, from his football philosophy, he’s a real thinker of the world game.
When Xavi left Barcelona in 2015, he moved to Al-Sadd, where he saw out his playing career
After hanging up his boots in 2019, Xavi has gone on to manage Al-Sadd, with some success
‘He’s someone that has helped the Qatari youth players to grow and to learn on a daily basis what it takes to play against the best teams in the world. Xavi has been really special for Qatari football.’
QATAR’S STARS TO WATCH IN EUROPE
Almoez Ali (Al Duhail): Already fifth on his country’s all-time top scorer list at the age of just 24. Has proved himself the man for big occasions with goals in the AFC Asian Cup final and Copa America.
Akram Afif (Al Sadd): Became the first ever Qatari to appear in LaLiga in 2016 while on loan at Sporting Gijon. A tricky left winger with more goal involvements than appearances in the league this season.
Tarek Salman (Al Sadd): The 23-year-old is learning under the tutelage of Xavi at the Qatari champions. An impressive centre-back who was nominated as one of the best in this season’s AFC Champions League.
There is suggestion that his time in the country could be coming to a close as he continues to be linked with a return to Barcelona and the head coach role at the Nou Camp. Qatar itself has its own new challenges to turn its head to.
As confirmed in 2020, Felix Sanchez’s side will be in the European qualifiers – although their games will be friendlies – for their home World Cup next year after being invited by UEFA to take part in a Group A alongside Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and the Republic of Ireland.
It’s Luxembourg later today, before they take on Azerbaijan on March 27, and Stephen Kenny’s side on March 30.
Having already impressed at the Copa America two years ago, it is another chance to showcase their progress to an oblivious audience.
‘It is important to be familiar with different football schools,’ says Mustafa, who is also a regular analyst on beIN Sports.
‘This is a new one for our team. Before, we played in Copa America. The team also played against Senegal, against [South] Korea. Asian football is different in terms of pace and other aspects. So the national team benefits from all these.’
The experiment may even benefit their opponents, too, with the Academy graduates capable of doling out their own lessons.
Those with World Cup aspirations would do well to study the Arabian Gulf underdogs that await in Group A next November.
Qatar players celebrate with the AFC Asian Cup after beating Japan 3-1 in the final in 2019